Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Susanna Pechuro

Introduction

Susanna Pechuro was a seventeen-year old school girl living with her parents and brother when she was arrested in 1951. Pechuro had been a member of a group of students who met secretly to read and discuss banned works. The group formed as the result of a conflict with a teacher who insisted on censoring their work before they shared it with the class. Of the original six members of the group, three were shot. When she was finally released, Pechuro did not enjoy her freedom as her family and friends thought she should. She found that they could not understand what she had experienced in the Gulag. Even ordinary events like going out with her friends proved to be difficult, “they would take me to an ice cream café and I would run away, because I felt I didn’t know how to eat ice cream.”

Arrest

“Some of the parents of my friends banned them from attending the sessions of our society. And it was our former teacher who gave a phone call to the Lubyanka which led to the eventual arrests. In the course of our discussions, other questions not of literary character had arisen…We discussed a lot and we came to conclusions that what was happening around us then was absolutely different from what we were being taught to believe – that it wasn’t socialism, but there were two imperialist camps: one American the other Soviet, and that there was no democracy in the Soviet Union. We expected to be arrested and we were prepared to face the firing squad. And we knew that they would torture us before they kill us. That’s why when we got to prison we were not surprised by how they were treating us.”

Labor

“It was very interesting for us. Where else would a Moscow girl, a young student, where would she have met such a big number of interesting people and heard such fantastic life stories? Where else could I have tried difficult kinds of work, been in difficult situations which required willpower? Everything was new. There was no time to be afraid; you had to live. And also we didn’t hope to ever leave the camp; we were prepared to stay there forever, and we had to work out our human position. But sometimes I felt childish emotions. Once, in the camp, I was working in the dressmaker’s shop – they used me to try on dresses for teenagers – and I tried on a dress, and then took it off and changed back into the prison uniform – and that made me cry.”

Suffering

“And the worst thing in that life is transportation from one camp to another. When you are in camp you have friends, and they can support you and help you, but when they take you out, they uproot you and your whole world collapses…And also it’s not only because this process of being transported somewhere is very hard, but emotionally that separation with your close ones, your friends, is equal to what you felt when you were separated from your relatives, and you go through that again and again and again, and you really feel complete despair. You feel that you can’t bear it any more. And then you meet the other people, and new people, and you understand that they’re no better off than you are.”

Propaganda

“And the worst thing in that life is transportation from one camp to another. When you are in camp you have friends, and they can support you and help you, but when they take you out, they uproot you and your whole world collapses…And also it’s not only because this process of being transported somewhere is very hard, but emotionally that separation with your close ones, your friends, is equal to what you felt when you were separated from your relatives, and you go through that again and again and again, and you really feel complete despair. You feel that you can’t bear it any more. And then you meet the other people, and new people, and you understand that they’re no better off than you are.”

Solidarity

“I was put into a cell with six other women. The first thing I asked them was whether you could escape. They looked at me, surprised. That was our level of knowledge you see: on the one hand, we knew what could happen to us; on the other, it was all some kind of childish game. The women taught me a lot, however. They taught me how to make a needle out of a straw from the broom or a fishbone, how to take thread from a handkerchief or dresses, how to mend a hole, how to pretend that you were awake when sleeping during the day. They taught me how to tap on the wall to the next cell, showing me all three ways of coding the alphabet. When I was transferred, I was an experienced prisoner. I knew what to do.”

Conflict

“The most horrible thing I saw in a camp was how children were taken away from their mothers. Because it’s something you can’t live with. And there are some things I don’t let myself remember, because if I do I get insomnia for several weeks remembering those screaming mothers after their children have been taken away from them, because they will never know where these children are being taken, to what orphanages. I’ve never seen anything more horrible than that, even though I also saw people beaten up. But nothing more horrible than the separation of children and mothers. And this can never and should never be forgiven.”

Guards

“The whole investigation was very hard. They used all the methods that they usually resorted to. It was frightening. Not all the time, but there were especially frightening moments – especially at the cross interrogation. Because I was not only young, but also very short, and imagine walking into a room where there are several big men sitting there and they start the cross-examination, and they all threaten me and swear and say nasty things. What was very common, and wasn’t considered to be torture, was night interrogations – which meant sleepless months. I had several months when I was allowed to sleep two hours a week. He asks you a question and while he’s asking it you fall asleep. Or they take you to the room for interrogation and you sleep on the way. They did it to everybody. That wasn’t considered torture. But there were also real tortures."

Survival

“In the prison there were rules of prison survival and they had been worked out by numerous generations of inmates. We knew that you had to walk a lot in the cell. You have to wash yourself with cold water to feel stronger and healthier. You have to talk to yourself if you are in solitary confinement. If they don’t let you read books you have to recite things by heart and you have to train your memory all the time. I gave myself lessons, school lessons, trying to remember my school timetable. You shouldn’t get disheveled – this is important. You shouldn’t go seedy and walk with undone shoelaces and without buttons, because if you go to seed, it will be the beginning of the end. We saw people dying in front of our eyes and those were the people who didn’t take proper care of themselves.”

Fates

on release from the Gulag – “It was like being born again – and I wanted to go back. It was very strange. Because in theory a person should be overjoyed at having come back, but this world is no longer our world. It’s now my world; my world is back there and every morning I woke up with the same thought: What am I doing here? I have to go back where I belong. Here nobody understands you, everything is alien. Secondly, that was because of my age. I didn’t know how to do things. I left my Moscow life still a schoolgirl, and when I came back I had to live, to adapt like an adult, a grown-up woman. I didn’t know how to wear clothes; I didn’t know how to speak properly. Even now, when nobody watches me, I prefer eating with a spoon and not a fork, because I feel more confident.”